My father died very suddenly, the day after Christmas, at the age of 80. He was a research biologist, a veteran of the Korean War, and an excellent parent to all four of us; my brothers JP and Sander, and my sister Pip, and a grandfather to all of our children. I first began writing about my family in 2002, when I first began contributing to this blog. Those were the posts that everyone seemed to like the most, and it led to my first book … and which led to other books. In all of this Dad was one of my biggest fans. So – I am going back and re-posting some of the very earliest posts – those which are presently lost in the bowels of the internet.

I’ll be flying out to California on Wednesday afternoon to help Mom and my brothers and sister sort out things, all thanks to Proud Veteran for her gift of Delta miles. My parents didn’t have internet at the house, and I probably won’t have much time … but then again, I might. In any case, I’ll be back for sure around the middle of January.

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When I was about three and a half, and my brother JP a toddler of two, we lived in a house away back in the hills. My parents had a penchant for howling wilderness, and any property at the end of a couple of miles of dirt road was their dream house, never mind that when it was going to rain heavily, they would have to leave the cars by the mailboxes, about a mile and a half away. The house seemed to me to be as large as a cathedral: it was actually a small cottage, as I discovered when we visited years later, and I could see out of windows that had once been far above my head. It had a graveled drive, and sat in a grove of trees, mostly manzanita and eucalyptus. There was a range of pyracantha bushes, with bright orange berries that Mom told us time and time again to NEVER put in our mouths. (JP, obedient and logical stuffed one up his nose, instead.)

Almost immediately upon moving in, my parents made a very unsettling discovery: the hillside was alive with snakes; primarily rattlesnakes of a dismayingly large and aggressive nature… dismaying because they did not stick to their usual habitat of brush and rocks, but sought out the sunny, sheltered flats around the house… where JP and I were likely to be playing. Rattlesnakes and toddlers are incompatible life forms, and no alternatives were viable. We could not be kept in the house all day, and Dad could not kill every snake on the hillside. He made a gallant try, his favorite weapon being a long handled hoe wielded with pinpoint accuracy and considerable force. Scarce a dent was made in the population, and Dad considered a revolutionary solution: knowledge.

JP and I were immediately enrolled in Dad’s seminar on “Snakes, General knowledge pertaining to, with special attention towards the dangerous varieties” and an ancillary course on first aid for snakebites.

He captured king snakes and the other harmless varieties with a snake hook, showed us the holes and shelters they preferred, let us handle them, lectured us on what they liked to eat. We were drilled on identifying them by their colors and markings, the patterns they made in the dust. For a time, there was a picture of me calmly handling a six-foot long specimen, about twice as long as I was tall.
“They eat rats and mice, “Dad lectured, “They are useful, keeping things in balance.”

Then he upped the ante and captured a rattler, keeping it in a large aquarium with a sturdy lid on the top in his study, so we could study it.
“Look at the diamond markings on the back…. Also it has a neck. In this part of the country the dangerous snakes almost always have a pronounced neck…. Listen to the sound it makes. “Dad tapped the side of the aquarium, and the snake coiled into a taut spring, tail rattling madly. “When you hear that sound, you should hold still until you see where it is coming from…. Then back away, slowly. They strike if they are cornered; given a chance they will go away. Be careful about large flat rocks, snakes like to lie out to get themselves warm. And never, ever put your hands or your feet into a place where you can’t see in.”

Grandpa Al and Granny Dodie were visiting, while Dad was keeping the rattlesnake in the den, and from the living room they could hear the sound of it buzzing distantly.
“What on earth is that sound?” Granny Dodie demanded, and Mom quickly replied.
“Cicadas!”

First aid for snakebites was the final segment of the seminar:
“The bite would look like this,” Dad showed us the picture in the First Aid Book, “You would first need to make a tourniquet, and put it on your arm or leg between your heart and the bite.”
How to make a tourniquet from a belt or shoelaces, how to widen the wound and suck out the venom and blood, being careful not to swallow any of it, Dad drilled us and made us practice: it’s outdated practice now, but we were letter perfect. I honestly think if I ever did have to administer snakebite first aid, I would revert automatically to what Dad taught us so carefully.

It turned out that this knowledge was so powerful, we never actually encountered a snake in the wild, except at the end of Dad’s snake hook. And we grew up with no fear of them, whatsoever. In fact, I think the zoo snake house is really neat, and snakes are way cool. It’s spiders that give me the creeps, but that’s another story.

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